Madeleine Bunting, (Wednesday February 02 2005 The Guardian) "Let's badger them to hell" Only a renegotiation of the west's relationship with the continent will qualify as a breakthrough
All the elements are in place - or almost all - for a breakthrough year on Africa. We have the much-vaunted commitment of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to spend their political capital on this - and now is not the time or place to quibble over the mixture of motives that includes the UK's much-needed international rehabilitation after the debacle of Iraq. Political opportunities often have such shabby births, the crucial issue is to keep eyes focused on the prize: will they deliver? Meanwhile, the tectonic plates that underpin international politics look as if they could shift given the right degree of pressure. And to explode the whole issue on to the public imagination, there is a massive cultural festival, Africa 05, sprawling across Britain for the next 10 months.
Because the critical G7 and G8 meetings are happening in the UK - the first is when the finance ministers meet on Friday to begin thrashing out the issues, the biggest is in July at Gleneagles - Africa will feature on the mainstream agenda in this country in a way that it hasn't done since Bob Geldof and Michael Buerk brought the "Biblical" famine scenes of Ethiopia to our television screens a generation ago.
That was a turning point in our understanding of what was happening on the continent - a dramatic wake-up call to the fragility of many African states and their continuing vulnerability to war, economic failure and terrible suffering. The hope is that this year could also be a turning point in mainstream public opinion. The coincidence of the political and the cultural events is the most interesting aspect: might the explosion of art, music, film-making, photography and sculpture this year succeed in challenging the dominant perception of Africa as a benighted continent riddled with disease, poverty and corruption? Culture can prise open minds and penetrate perceptions in a way that politics has long since failed to do. There's a part of the story that has been missing for too long - the extraordinary ingenuity and resourcefulness of millions of Africans, and an incredible creativity, often with sparse resources.
It clearly suits campaigning aid organisations to simplify the story of Africa to one of disaster proportions in ever cruder efforts to stir western apathy, and the same story fits the politicians' need for grand rhetoric, but it does Africans a grave disservice, turning them into globalisation's "losers". An entire continent is viciously condemned to victimhood - a "basket case". The challenge is to put the competing, contradictory narratives of imagination and suffering alongside each other - one doesn't have to cancel out the other. To do that, two key concepts need to emerge. The first is that what Africa most needs is justice - not charity, (more of that in a moment). The second is that the world needs to grasp - as it did with the tsunami - that Aids is a freak act of nature with terrible consequences for many more people than the tragic Indian Ocean earthquake. What's needed is the same kind of dramatic, moving global response; we need queues of people offering to pay an Aids tax from their income, to sponsor a life and pay for their drugs, to "adopt" an Aids orphan, to pay a doctor in a local healthcare clinic.
The unprecedented sense of opportunity this year makes it only more pressing that the aid agencies' coalition, Make Poverty History, gets its act together fast. Its faltering start wouldn't be so worrying if it had time to achieve its huge ambitions - but it has only a year. The Indian Ocean earthquake pretty much scuppered its launch at the turn of the year, but now the traditional rivalries between agencies - many of whom still feel sore over Jubilee 2000's appropriation of their supporter base during its debt campaign - are draining vital impetus from its organisation. It feels like a campaign led by a committee. It lacks the daring and quick-footedness vital to success; there's no sense of a strong, centrally led coherence. One quickly picks up the squabbling about the appropriate relationship to government - is Oxfam's director, Barbara Stocking, now the government's chief cheerleader? Would some old-fashioned laments on neo-liberalisation score better with supporters even if it muddies the pitch to government?
A strong campaign that mobilises the grassroots - and at last, there is some evidence of that - is vital to ensure this year doesn't waft by on a lot of hot air. Brown knows that well and is doing all he can to conjure up the "public clamour" he needs to arm-wrestle his international counterparts into agreements.
At the moment, Blair and Brown are receiving plaudits on all sides for their "commitment", but they shouldn't be getting such an easy ride. It's delivery that matters, not commitment. Let's badger them to hell for the next 10 months. First off, Blair shouldn't get any plaudits until he has delivered some change in US policy; he has the political capital he accumulated on Iraq, now's the time to start spending it. Second, no more pats on the back over aid - the UK still lags well behind the Scandinavians and Dutch. Third, after the debt campaign wound down in 2000, the government took its foot off the pedal; low-income countries are still paying $100m every day in repayments, dwarfing their spending on health and education (and any aid they receive).
Fourth, trade towers over all other issues; it is trade not aid or debt relief that reduces poverty. But trade might hurt our interests, it is about justice not charity; it doesn't generate the same feel-good factor. The west's record on trade is shocking; we are expecting African countries to develop economically in a way in which no other country has ever done - with open markets, free trade and liberalisation. The result is to kill off African industry; you can't expect a textile industry to flourish in Zambia if you dump second-hand clothes there for a fraction of the cost of home-produced ones. Africa needs access to markets, it needs reform of agricultural subsidies and no dumping - that, I gather, is part of what Blair's Commission for Africa will tell him next month. Nothing new, but what would be is Britain doing something about it instead of hiding behind the EU, and blaming France. The critical moment for the whole year will be at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong in December.
The danger is that if Make Poverty History doesn't sharpen up its act, the agenda gets hijacked. Last week at Davos, one session on long-term sustainable funding for Africa with Brown and Bill Gates showed how things can go awry. No sooner had Gates commented that this was an issue well beyond individual donations - even his own - than actor Sharon Stone pops up to declare a gift of $10,000 for mosquito nets. She triggered an auction of headline grabbing and raised $1m, and the session's debate got shelved. She got the publicity; a few Africans might or might not get some nets, but in another five years, there'll be more sessions at Davos on the need for long-term funding. What we need this year is not these kind of publicity stunts, but a generational renegotiation of our relationship with Africa.